Listen, if you’ve read my previous post, you’re probably thinking to yourself…is Poe the only thing she ever writes about? The answer is, no. Come on though, it’s October! Who better to usher us (“The Fall of the House of Usher” anyone?) through this season than literature’s resident psychopomp, Edgar Allan Poe?
In all seriousness, Poe’s work has captured the imaginations of generations of readers, which made me want to consider why these stories keep us coming back. What is it about Poe’s writing that continues to intrigue and even terrify us?
My answer: meticulously crafted work; that is how. Poe is a master of his art. His words are carefully chosen to render their chosen effect, guiding the reader down whatever dark hallway, or shadowed path he has carved out for them. So, I invite you to examine with me one of Poe’s most famous works, his poem “The Raven,” and appraise exactly how this wordsmith operates.
In Poe’s “The Raven,” the unnamed speaker slowly follows his own obsessive preoccupation with death into madness, taking the audience along with him. The speaker is addressing a bird (who may be a figment of his imagination) with philosophical questions regarding the afterlife. The repetition of an automated response from this bird causes the speaker to become emotionally unstable, his own morbid and melancholy brooding leading him to infer meanings from this response which further his distress.
One of the main devices which Poe uses to achieve this effect is repetition. During the course of the poem, certain words, sounds, and emotions are reiterated in different variations so as to mimic the mania building inside of the speaker.
The tone of irrational fixation becomes clear in the second stanza of the poem:
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor,
Eagerly I wished the morrow; –vainly I had tried to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow–sorrow for the lost Lenore–
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore–
Nameless here for evermore. (7-12)
Poe makes a point to state that it is “bleak December” (7). This information, in addition to the fact that the events are taking place at midnight, alludes to the end of something, a kind of death of the day or year. The emphasis is again placed on death when the speaker notes that, “each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor” (8). This vivid, and none too subtle, metaphor drives home the melancholy tenor of the speaker’s thoughts.
It is then stated that this somber mood is because of the loss of a loved one, a beautiful woman named Lenore (11). Within this brief stanza the idea of death is hinted at, or directly addressed, over and over again, leaving no doubt as to the singularity of thought in the speaker.
This stanza is also an excellent example of the pointed word choices that Poe employs. The author states in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” that he is building atmosphere by “unusual, and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration” (Poe, 743). The stanza is comprised of a quatrain and a couplet; the final two lines (couplet) rhyme with one another, as well as rhyming with the final line in the quatrain. This produces a musical quality that is emphasized further by the use of internal rhyme within the stanza.
In the first and second lines the words “remember,” “December,” and “ember” all appear in close proximity (7-8). This is mirrored in the third and fourth lines by the words “morrow,” “borrow,” and “sorrow” (9-10). This sing-song hypnotic quality pulls the reader in, as the speaker himself is being pulled into his obsession.
By employing the device of repetition in both the tone of the poem, as well as in creative technique, Poe is able to establish an impression of compulsive insanity. The speaker circles around and around the same thought, with each pass becoming more frenzied and unstable. A replication of the anxiety which fills Poe’s speaker is created in the audience by proxy. The reader is subjected to the same unceasing thoughts that the speaker himself experiences. At the end of Poe’s poem, the desired effect is produced, and both the speaker and the reader are exhausted; each being oddly satisfied with an abundance of sorrow and lunacy.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Raven.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.